Once a beloved teaching tool, Dick and Jane was later denounced as dull, counterproductive, and even misogynistic. Still, whether you loved or hated them, there’s no denying that little Dick and Jane have earned their place in history.
1. THE CHARACTERS WERE CREATED BY AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER.
In her view, very young students had a hard time reading because they couldn’t relate to standard children’s books. So Sharp proposed a collection of short stories that would each introduce a handful of new words. They’d star average kids that any elementary schooler could identify with. And—critically—these characters would appear in simple illustrations designed to help connect a given word with its definition.
Gray loved the concept. Under his guidance, Sharp developed a core cast: Dick, Jane, baby Sally, Mother, Father, and a well-behaved dog named Spot. As she once explained in an interview, “There’s nothing these book children could do that [actual children] couldn’t remember having done themselves … We made reading easy for them and encouraged them to read more.”
Sharp didn’t personally write any of the several dozen published Dick and Jane compendiums, but she helped supervise their basic plots and paintings. The teacher, who never had any kids of her own, called Dick and Jane “my children.” She passed away in 1981.
2. THEY DEBUTED IN 1930'S ELSON BASIC READERS: PRE-PRIMER.
Gray co-authored Pre-Primer with William H. Elson, who had been churning out reading primers since 1909. In 1934, it was re-released under the more famous title Dick and Jane. Dozens of sequels would appear over the next 35 years.
3. DICK AND JANE USED A GRADE-BASED COMPLEXITY SYSTEM.
Editions that were intended for first-graders contained about 300 words apiece. Third-graders were given 1000 and, in 6th grade, kids followed similar escapades in 4000-word volumes.
4. THE SIBLINGS WERE PART OF AN EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION.
For many years, most teachers would get new readers started by going over the relationship between letters and sounds (“M” makes an “mmmm” noise, “-tion” sounds like “shun,” etc.). Dick and Jane primers, on the other hand, came with guides that championed the “look-say” approach. This method—which became popular during the 1930s—calls for largely ignoring phonics. Instead, a printed word is repeatedly shown to a child while the teacher says it out loud. Helpful pictures are often involved as well. So typical Dick and Jane paragraphs go something like this: “Look, Spot. Oh, look, look Spot. Look and see. Oh, see. ”
With enough repetition, pupils learn (at least in theory) to “sight read” a given word and add more to their vocabulary—and subconsciously pick up the basics of phonics in the process, enabling them to break down and pronounce new words on their own.
5. BY 1950, AN ESTIMATED 80 PERCENT OF AMERICAN FIRST GRADERS WERE READING DICK AND JANE TEXTS.
Some 85 million first graders plowed through these books between 1930 and 1970.
6. THE BOOKS RELIED ON A GLACIALLY-PACED FORMULA.
Every page contained one—and only one—new word that the reader hadn’t yet seen in any previous Dick and Jane collections. On every third page, all the new words would be combined. And not a single story introduced more than five or six total.
7. MOTHER AND FATHER REALLY KEPT UP WITH THE TIMES.
Illustrator Eleanor Campbell would regularly consult Sears catalogs so that she could fit the family with “modern” clothes and vehicles in new editions.
8. CHILDREN WROTE MANY LETTERS TO THE TITULAR CHARACTERS.
Scott Foresman, the Illinois-based company that published Dick and Jane, received a few thousand letters addressed to Dick and Jane—and employees ghostwrote a reply to each dispatch.
9. THERE WAS A DICK AND JANE BACKLASH IN THE LATE 1950S.
When the look-say strategy began falling out of favor, its poster kids were vilified. In 1955, the educational manifesto Why Johnny Can’t Read championed a return to phonics-based teaching. And author Rudolf Flesch had some choice words for Dick and Jane. The entire franchise, he argued, was “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, [and] tasteless.”
Over the next decade, the backlash grew. In 1961, English professor Arthur S. Trace released What Ivan Knows and Johnny Doesn’t, which claimed that average Russian fourth-graders commanded a vocabulary that was nearly 10,000 words strong. Half a world away, their American counterparts were mastering less than 1800 at that level.
Trace largely blamed the gap on America's obsession with look-say (which he dubbed “look-and-guess”). Students who had been “taught the sounds of the letters from the very beginning … quickly [learned] to ‘sound out’ the many thousands of words which were already in their speaking vocabulary and they could therefore read highly interesting poems and stories.” Dick and Jane, he argued, had to go.
10. THE SERIES DIDN'T INCLUDE ANY AFRICAN-AMERICAN CHARACTERS UNTIL 1964.
As the nation finally outlawed public segregation, Fun with Our Friends added an African American family to Dick and Jane’s neighborhood. Among them were an older brother named Mike and his twin sisters Pam and Penny. Catholic schools ran this particular reader a year before public schools picked it up for distribution in ’65.
11. FEMINISTS WEREN'T FANS.
Once the 1970s arrived, Mother swapped Leave it to Beaver-style dresses for pantsuits—but she still spent most of her time around the kitchen. This fact didn’t go unnoticed by the women’s movement. Elizabeth Rider Montgomery, who authored some of Dick and Jane’s most popular titles, admitted in 1976 that “Maybe, by today’s standards, the books are sexist … If I were writing [them] now, I’d have father washing dishes, or mother mowing the lawn. Better yet, both mother and father doing things together, like fixing the car.”
Sharp felt differently. “It never bothered the children,” she said. “That’s all an adult’s viewpoint.”
12. DR. SEUSS BRAGGED ABOUT HELPING TO KILL OFF DICK AND JANE.
Without Sharp’s brainchildren, there’d be no Cat in the Hat. In 1954, Life magazine published a scathing critique of Dick and Jane, which writer John Hersey found painfully boring. Inspired by said piece, William Spaulding—who headed the educational division at Houghton Mifflin publishing—challenged Theodore Seuss Geisel to write “a story that first-graders can’t put down.”
Geisel responded with The Cat in the Hat—his first smash-hit. Children’s literature hasn’t looked back since. “I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries,” he subsequently said. “That is my greatest satisfaction.”
13. A YIDDISH PARODY LED TO A LAWSUIT.
Though Dick and Jane were retired in 1965, Pearson Education retains the copyright. When Elis Weiner and Barbara Davilman released their 2004 spoof book Yiddish with Dick and Jane (which features lines like “Jane is married to Bob. Jane loves Bob very much. Bob is a real mensch.”), the publishing company sued.
Though Pearson claimed that copyright infringement had taken place, the defendants cited their work as satire “entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment and related laws permitting the expression of social commentary.” The parties eventually settled out of court.
14. TODAY, VINTAGE DICK AND JANE BOOKS ARE COLLECTOR'S ITEMS.
15. ONE AUTHOR CAME UP WITH AN EPILOGUE FOR THE FAMILY.
Education expert A. Sterl Artley joined the Dick and Jane team after World War II. Following his retirement from academia, the scholar busied himself by hitting the road and delivering lectures prior to his death in 1998. Audiences always asked “Whatever happened to Dick and Jane?” Artley’s standard reply was that Dick became a politician who uses the slogan “Run, Dick, run.” As for Jane, she turned into a staunch woman’s rights advocate. Finally, grown-up Sally now teaches at—where else?—an elementary school, where, he explained, she often told her students to “Jump, children, jump.”